Balls of Steel: First Impressions

Butterflies swirl in your stomach. Your palms sweat. Despite an overwhelming sense of anxiety, the emotion churning is hope. Hope they like you. Hope they want to build a relationship with you. Hope you’ll hit a home run.

First date? Nope. I’m referring to pitching. But whether a date or a pitch meeting, a first impression will make or break you. Don’t blow it.

I’ve not only seen my share of writer roadkill on the sidelines of pitchfests, I’ve also listened to countless disillusioned friends after horrid first dates. I’ve learned a thing or two about first impressions.

Here are some tips to help you make yours great:

1. Give off the aroma of success: Shower. Brush your teeth. Use mouthwash. Better yet, floss. Deodorant’s a must. But what gives off a stronger stench than halitosis is desperation. They’ll smell it before you even enter the room. Don’t be one of “those” people. You’ve worked hard on your script (at least you should have). Own it. Own the moment.

2. Show your personality. That executive, manager or agent has to not only love your concept but also fall in love with you as a person. Projects can take years to develop. Would you want to work with a boring deadbeat for that long? I think not. Just like in relationships, you’ll get dumped, erased and rewritten by the next smoother, more beautiful collaborator to come along.

3. Be real. Don’t present yourself to be someone you aren’t or imply you have bigger connections than you do. You’ll ultimately be discovered as a fake. Being honest and humble will always trump being a poser.

4. Shut your mouth and listen. It is scientifically proven that if you ask questions and allow a person to talk about themselves, they’ll think you are fabulous, even though they did most of the talking. Pay careful attention to what they’re saying. Learn what their needs are, then adjust your expectations and conversation accordingly.

5. Do not offer sex. That may be one pitch you get an immediate “yes” to, but your career will be doing the walk of shame right along with you.

6. The pitch has to match the execution. If you have a killer concept, but the execution falls flat, the producer is less likely to ask for another project of yours again. A red mark will go next to your name in their files. I cannot stress this one enough. Think about it this way: you set up a Match.com date, and they shows up looking twenty years older and twenty pounds heavier than their profile picture. I highly doubt you’d ask them out again. Your writing has one shot at a first impression too. If you learn nothing else from this post, that better be it.

7. Like in love, timing is everything. If you venture out before you’re work or your heart is ready, you’ll fall flat on your face. The right connection is worth the wait. But to make that connection happen, you need to be ready for it when it arrives. Don’t pitch an agent when you only have one script. Build your arsenal. Do the hard work. The number one question people ask is, “What else have you got?” Be able to answer it.

8. Research. Know what you can about the company’s background. If you wrote a period piece, and they only produce romantic comedies, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Also consider investing in IMDb Pro to learn about the financial successes or failures of films. If a company just had a flop, they won’t be able to afford your big-budget picture. At the very least, use Google. I’d venture to bet it’s often used for researching dates. Speaking of which, you should Google yourself every now and then and see what comes up. Don’t assume the executive isn’t researching you too.

9. Believe in yourself. If you don’t resonate self-respect, no one else will respect you either. Make direct eye contact. Smile. Give a firm handshake. Those simple gestures show self confidence.

10. Manage expectations. This tip is one I’ll write an entire future post on, because it’s that important. I see so many people go to pitchfests expecting to be discovered, or upset when two months later, they still haven’t heard from the producers who requested their script. While your script is the most important thing in your professional world, it is not to those who requested it. They have a stack of other scripts to read and bosses to answer to. Be realistic. This is about building long-lasting relationships. Don’t be an impatient jerk while you’re waiting for them to get around to you. If you wrote a kick-ass script, believe me, your phone will ring.

Think back to your first meetings. Whether you succeeded or not, as long as you learned something, you’re one step closer to success. I assure you, some of these tips made this list because they are my own failures turned into lessons. And no, it wasn’t tip #5. Just sayin’.

Don’t forget to share your advice below. Often the comments you leave are the best tips of all!

This Saturday, Douglas A. Blackmon and I will be speaking at Great American Pitchfest at 3:30pm, presenting a case study of our adaptation of Slavery by Another Name. It’s a free lecture, so please join us. Don’t be shy. You can practice your first impression on us!

16 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: First Impressions

  1. pete

    I enjoyed the article. Maybe something on dealing with your fears/insecurities/doubts when making that first impression would be good, too. Like, owning the fear, but doing it anyway.

  2. J.R. Mathiassen

    Thank you very, very much for the tips. I’ve already signed up for the Screenwriters World Conference, and with your tips I will be prepared for pitching my scripts.

    Signing up for the Screenwriters World Conference now gives me a firm deadline to get my scripts written and shiny.

  3. Pingback: Voyeurism, Jerks, and Energy | ramblings of a recovering insecureaholic

  4. Garth Jenkins

    Thanks for the article!

    I’d love to go to pitching events, not that there are many in England, but, most of the time I’m agoraphobic, with the odd lapse into normality! Is there an industry opinion on stand-ins doing the pitching?

  5. Costel

    Great advice, Jeanne. I am not there yet, still working on my third script, but I plan to attend one of the many pitching sessions around in less than a year. I can definitely do the “shower” part but not sure the rest… (just kidding).

    As everybody else on this board I am confident that my scripts are very good, I just need to meet the right people in the business who are going to make me rich and famous (please don’t wake me up). Of course the fact that English is not my first language it’s a minus but when they are going to see how exceptionally well written my scripts are, how intelligent, good looking and extremely … modest person I am they are going to love me. Don’t you think?

  6. Captain

    Jeanne,
    Two months ago I did an override on my better judgement and sent a first draft to the director of Army wives. He said, “Send it on over, I’d be glad to look at it.” You told me not to. It was like me trying a flim flam thank you mam on the first date. learning is a lot harder than listening and being taught. That very valuable contact is severed and blown out.
    Captain
    PS I do have something positive to share. I am trying to put together a group to do a short. When I look at the script knowing that I am going to be the one filming, It made me a better writer. It is like fatherhood. When you really are a great father and completely responsible, it will make a man out of you.

  7. Dwacon Texas Ranger

    Having fallen to pieces during my first pitch session at a major Hollywood production company… I have since taken a Scarlett O’Hara type vow that, as God is my witness, I will never blow another pitch sesh again!

    Now… to figure out how to make a suit out of my curtains…

  8. Elizabeth Karr

    Excellent article! WE GET ONE CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION. That says it all, and Jeanne’s tips are right on the money. Hard to pick which tip is the most important – they’re all good – but if I had to choose one, it would be #4: Listen. Because really, every meeting is a golden opportunity to glean information. So listen and learn!

  9. Dimitri Davis

    So true! First impressions are everything in the entertainment business, and these are great tips for success.

    #7 is the one I stress most to writers – if you don’t have the goods yet, you’re not ready for real pitching.

  10. Vivi Anna

    Great article Jeanne. And so true. I think we all struggle with one of those….I hope not #5 and you need to have all your ducks in a row before going in to pitch.

    Good luck on your meetings and pitches this weekend!!

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